In my favorite movie, Three Days of the Condor, the assassin Joubert advises Robert Redford's character, Joe Turner, to leave the United States. Turner says "I'd miss it if I were gone."
Turner knows that people within the U.S. government hired Joubert to kill him, but he still doesn't want to leave. He'd miss it. That's how I feel about the Eureka Reporter.
For those who like to bash the Reporter, consider Humboldt County without it. When a newspaper goes from publishing seven days a week to five, that's a sign of hard financial times. There are others. Its reporters are disappearing and more articles in the paper now carry no byline than stories that do carry a byline. (Generally that means that what you think is an article is just a printed press release.)
To many people, that's reason to celebrate. A local boycott of the Reporter is a running joke — you can't boycott something that's free. Advertisers can, however, although I tend to think that the failure of the local business community to support the free paper has more to do with the problems of measuring the readership of a free paper than it has to do with dislike of its political slant.
I'd rather have a conservative paper than no paper. I'd rather have a paper owned by a conservative zillionaire than no paper. Consider that Dean Singleton owns the other paper. He lives in Colorado even as he owns just about every local paper in California.
There's a rich history in the media business of newspapers founded on the egos of crazy rich men. In my short journalism history I worked for four crazy zillionaires — Charlie Munger, Bruce Wasserstein, Jim Cramer and Sy Newhouse. All four operated good publications. I avoided working for Singleton, not because of politics but because of his disregard for quality, his focus on newspapers as product and his tendency to pay reporters little, work them hard and bust their unions.
These days, with newspaper circulation falling across the board, you'd have to be crazy to get into the newspaper business. Consider the Bancrofts and the Wall Street Journal — a whole family of crazy rich people getting out of the newspaper business.
The Eureka Reporter recently attempted to survey its readers. Unfortunately, it was a case study in how not to do a media survey. First, it distributed the survey only in the Sunday newspaper, so it eliminated people who didn't pick it up that day. You had to return the survey by hand delivery or mail.
In a note to readers Sunday about changes at the newspaper, publisher Judi Pollace said this: "The most fun a publisher can have is reading comments about how much you love us, and there were hundreds." That's backwards thinking. To grow newspaper readership you have to reach disgruntled readers and find out what they want and aren't getting. Readers rarely love good newspapers. They read them, utilize them and act on what they read. Journalism is a masochistic profession. We're the messengers people often want to kill. We strive to tell a truth people often don't want to hear. Journalists understand that if too many people love what we're doing, we probably aren't doing the job right.
The survey's multiple choice questions focused on what people did or did not read in the paper, rather than why they did or did not read it. For example, it asked you to check off whether you regularly, occasionally or never read the Humor Column by Nathan Rushton. But I didn't know that Rushton's column was supposed to be a humor column, so the question confused me. And it didn't ask me whether I would regularly read his column if it were actually funny.
But don't write off the paper yet. It eliminated paper publishing on Mondays and Tuesdays, but it recently added a fourth member to its editorial board: Peter Hannaford, a key adviser to Governor Ronald Reagan and a former partner to former Reagan adviser and lobbyist extraordinaire Micheal Deaver.
It makes for some interesting dynamics on the paper. The way editorials used to work involved a majority vote from the members of the three-person team. That led, at least once, to managing editor Glenn Franco Simmons writing a separate column opposing the paper's stand. If they still use the voice vote, I'd like to see how they get out of a split.
I like having the Eureka Reporter around. It gives jobs to my current and former students. And it prints any opinion out there. For those who see it as a bullhorn for Arkley, they ignore how it prints columns by Amy Goodman, Dave Berman and others. It gives a forum for the 911 Truth folks — those pushing to reopen the investigation into the collapse of the World Trade Centers — who can't get their voices into the North Coast Journal or Times-Standard. My stand isn't whether I support the opinions or not. What I support is the forum for expression.
Until Heather Muller's byline disappeared, it was the only paper that consistently covered our courthouse and kept an eye on what cases our district attorney prosecuted or pleaded out.
It also serves as a check on how the other paper treats its reporters. It is hard to tell your editor to screw himself when the other publications pay writers $25 a story or 10 cents a word. Feed your kids on that.
While you can't boycott a free paper, there's an effective way of opposing it. Support the other paper. Arkley subsidizes the Eureka Reporter. When someone will rather pay for the competition than get his paper free, that's a quantifiable protest. Arkley loses money with every issue printed. You don't like what the paper says? Write it a letter or column. He's paying for the ink and newsprint and the energy and labor it costs to run his beautiful press. I'm betting the Reporter will print it. They'll print just about anything.
Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism at Humboldt State University. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, but better yet, get your opinion publicly aired at theEureka Reporter, theTimes-Standard, theJournalor theArcata Eye. Support your local press.